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Singapore Government

Opening Speech By Minister Masagos Zulkifli At The Second Reading Of The Adoption Of Children Bill

Opening Speech By Minister Masagos Zulkifli At The Second Reading Of The Adoption Of Children Bill

1          Mr Speaker, I beg to move, “That the Bill be now read a second time.”

A. INTRODUCTION

2          First and foremost, our starting point is that every child deserves to grow up in a loving family and a caring community. We want our children to thrive under the care of trusted adults.

3          This is part of our Social Compact in Singapore, where families form the bedrock of our society. They are our first line of support. The Government will preserve strong families because they are our foundation that nurture and build resilient individuals, together with the support of a caring community.

4          However, we note that in some instances, a child’s birth parents may be either unable or unwilling to care for him or her. This is when the Government must facilitate alternative and needed care arrangements. Where reunification with their birth parents is unlikely, adoption into a strong and stable family is an important enabler – providing the children with a better chance of having a good start in life and achieving better outcomes.

5          Today, adoption in Singapore is governed by the Adoption of Children Act 1939 (or the ACA). In the past decade, the number of adoption applications has averaged about 400 annually, with a dip in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic and cross-border 
restrictions. Over 90% of applications were granted by the Courts.

6          Adoption agencies have also been playing an increasingly bigger role in the adoption sector. Domestically, there are about 10 to 15 commercial adoption agencies (or I will call them here now, CAAs).

a.         They provide various services for prospective adopters. For example, arranging pre-adoption assessments and matching them with children identified for adoption.

b.         There are also four Social Service Agencies (or SSAs) which provide similar services. MSF appoints these SSAs to conduct pre-adoption briefings and assessments.

c.         Currently, all adoption agencies are not directly regulated, although they must comply with Singapore laws, including laws against child trafficking.

7          The ACA was last substantively amended in 1985. Since then, the adoption landscape has evolved significantly and seen several key developments.

a.         First, adoption applications have become increasingly complex. MSF is seeing more adoption applications involving children with high needs and prospective adopters with concerning issues.

b.         Second, some vulnerable children in State care, who would benefit from adoption, face obstacles in the adoption process. Primarily due to objections from their birth parents.

c.         Third, the CAAs have become more prominent in the adoption sector. With a limited number of local children available for adoption, prospective adopters have sought their services to source for foreign children. Over time, MSF has received feedback about such CAAs engaging in undesirable practices that are financially motivated, with little to no regard for the interests of the child, prospective adopters, and birth parents. While MSF has administratively addressed such undesirable practices, legislative levers are needed for greater deterrence. Because this cannot be tolerated in our society.

8          Therefore, this Bill will repeal and re-enact the ACA with enhanced provisions to govern the adoption sector, practices and processes in Singapore, and to better safeguard the child’s welfare.

9          In formulating the Bill, MSF had consulted extensively.  This included key stakeholders like our adopted children, adoptive parents, adoption agencies, agencies supporting women with unplanned pregnancies, religious leaders, lawyers, and the Courts.

a.         While the groups were diverse, I was heartened to hear they all shared a common view – that is that the child’s welfare should be at the heart of our considerations.

b.         Overall, we had received feedback and suggestions from over 200 respondents. Many of which were taken on board.

c.         We also carefully studied international developments and best practices on adoption. Learning what would be useful and relevant for our social and cultural context.

d.         This Bill is the culmination of their suggestions and aspirations.

B. KEY PROVISIONS IN THE ADOPTION OF CHILDREN BILL 2022

10         Before I go into the key provisions allow me to clarify upfront the three main groups of people mentioned in the Bill.

a.         First, the “Guardian-in-Adoption” (or GIA). This is a public officer responsible for safeguarding the welfare of children identified for adoption, and granted powers through the Bill to carry out various statutory functions.

b.         Second, “adoption agencies”. These refer to persons in the business of arranging for interested prospective adopters to adopt. Today, there are commercial adoption agencies and some SSAs that provide such services.

c.         Third, “authorised adoption agencies”. MSF intends to authorise some fostering agencies and SSAs that handle adoption-related work to have specified statutory functions and powers, such as to perform Adoption Suitability Assessments.

11         Now, allow me to elaborate on the key provisions of the Bill, which are grouped into three key thrusts:

a.         First, finding a good home for every child;

b.         Second, balancing the interest of birth parents and the child; and 

c.         Third, putting in place a sound regulatory system for the adoption process.

I. FINDING A GOOD HOME FOR EVERY CHILD 

12         First, finding a good home for every child. The first thrust is finding a good home for every child identified for adoption. As I said earlier, the key focus of adoption is the child’s welfare, rather than about supporting parenthood. This means ensuring they are adopted by families who can provide good home environments for them.

Clearer and Tightened Eligibility Criteria for Adoption

13         In this regard, we will provide greater clarity on and tighten the eligibility criteria for adoption.

14         First, we will prioritise applicants with a stronger nexus to Singapore.

a.         This is given the small number of children identified for adoption and the challenges in accurately assessing prospective adopters based overseas.

b.         Today, the Act requires the applicant to be resident in Singapore. Clause 4 specifies that the applicant for adoption under Singapore jurisdiction must be habitually resident in Singapore. In determining this, the Court will consider how long the applicants have been living in a country, where they work, and the base of their social and economic ties. For joint applications, at least one applicant must be a Singapore Citizen (SC) or both applicants must be Permanent Residents (PRs), while a sole applicant should be a SC or a PR. The Bill allows the Court to recognise exceptional cases where adoption would be in the child’s welfare. For example, if a Singaporean couple living overseas wishes to adopt their orphaned niece living in Singapore.

15         Second, we will provide more guidance on who can adopt jointly given the differing marriage laws across jurisdictions.

a.          The Bill specifies that applicants married under Singapore law can do so.

b.         For couples who married overseas, only those who would be regarded as lawfully married if their marriage had taken place in Singapore can adopt jointly. This means that only a man and a woman married to each other can apply together. This is because Singapore’s marriage law only allows a man and a woman to marry each other.

16         Third, Clause 5 establishes the default position that applicants convicted of serious crimes cannot adopt.

a.         This improves on the current arrangement, which relies on the court-appointed guardian-in-adoption to object on a case-by-case basis.

b.         The list of serious crimes will be prescribed in subsidiary legislation
and will include offences such as sexual abuse, violence, and drug consumption offences.

c.         Exceptions may be made in special circumstances. For example, if an applicant had committed the offence when he or she was a teenager 
and has since remained crime-free and assessed to have a low risk of reoffending, the GIA may provide a favourable assessment and the Court may decide to grant the adoption order. But let me emphasise that ultimately, it remains for the Court to be satisfied that there is no risk of harm to the child, before granting an adoption order. This is not a trivial matter and would be considered carefully and dutifully – both by the GIA and the Court.

17         Lastly, in the course of addressing queries from prospective adopters, MSF explains to them the criteria used.

a.         Clause 7 provides factors that the Court, the GIA and authorised adoption agencies must consider when assessing suitability.

b.         This includes factors that we will prescribe in subsidiary legislation. For example, the strength of applicants’ marriage, parenting capacity, and existence of support networks.

18         Additionally, Clause 7 also requires Court judgments on adoption to be considered in assessing suitability of prospective adopters.

a.         In particular, the High Court has in the past held that relevant public policies can be taken into account in adoption applications.

b.         In this regard, I would like to reiterate the Government’s statements in Parliament in January and October 2019 that as a matter of public policy, we do not encourage planned and deliberate single parenthood as a lifestyle choice.

c.         To be clear, we do not support the use of Assisted Reproduction Technology (or ART) or surrogacy to conceive, and then adopt a child.

d.         Second, our public policy encourages parenthood within marriage. In the case of a man and a woman married in accordance with Singapore’s marriage law, they may be medically unable to conceive children, and surrogacy is their only option. If so, it would be possible for them to adopt their child who is conceived through surrogacy, if the arrangement is carried out in a jurisdiction where surrogacy is not illegal or unlawful.

e.         The Government has also stated that it is a matter of public policy that we do not support the formation of same-sex family units, which the High Court had affirmed in December 2018 in UKM v Attorney-General. We reiterated in January 2019 that we do not support the formation of same-sex families through processes such as adoption. 

f.         These public policies will be taken into consideration when determining suitability to adopt.

Introduction of Additional Safeguards

19         We will also introduce more safeguards into the adoption process.

20         Clause 11 lists three pre-requisites before prospective adopters can apply to Court.

a.         First, they must attend a Pre-Adoption Briefing. This enables them to better understand the adoption process, eligibility criteria, and unique needs of an adopted child.

b.         Second, they must attend a Disclosure Briefing. This equips prospective adopters with the knowledge and skills to disclose the child’s adoptive status at a suitable time, with the child’s welfare in mind.
i. Now, MSF strongly encourages such disclosure. During one of our engagement sessions, I myself heard the candid views of adopted children who shared with me about their adoption journey and the importance of disclosure to them. They were very brave.
ii. 10-year-old Zephaniah Lim was one of them, who emailed us after the session. I would like to share with the House an excerpt. He said, and I quote, that “Forever Daddies and Mummies must tell their children about their Tummy Mummies and that they came out from their stomachs. Because the children need to know where they came from." Zephaniah’s moving words represents the voice of many adopted children. And as a House, we ought to support their voices.
iii. Nevertheless, we recognise that some birth and adoptive parents may have concerns regarding disclosure. I fully understand this. We are therefore taking an incremental approach towards disclosure. As a first step, we will mandate disclosure briefings, but not the disclosure itself. MSF will study practices overseas and consult key stakeholders on further steps that we could take towards greater disclosure. For example, the setting up of an adoption register.

c.         Third, they must undergo an Adoption Suitability Assessment (or ASA).
i. Today, only applicants adopting a foreign unrelated child or a child in State care need to undergo a pre-adoption assessment. We have not required this in other cases. This is because the child is likely related to the applicants and already living with them before their adoption decision.
ii. Nonetheless, we have received feedback that the ASA would be useful to prepare and provide early support to all applicants. Thus, we will now require all applicants to obtain a favourable ASA before they can adopt. Where prospective adopters are related to the child, such as step-parents, and do not present with any concerns, they may undergo a simplified ASA process. All applicants must also reside in Singapore for at least a year. This ensures that they are settled here, and their family and support systems are stable. 
Applicants may appeal to the GIA against an authorised adoption agency’s decision on an ASA, to ensure that their views are heard.

21         Next, for the sake of the child’s welfare, we encourage timely applications for adoption.

a.         Clause 33 allows the Court to strike out applicants’ applications that are made a long time after a child has started living with the applicants. This is to deter prospective adopters from delaying their application filing.

b.         This provision will not apply in specified circumstances where the child 
is already likely to be living with the prospective adopters. For example, if the child is a biological or related child.

Additional Powers to Obtain Information for Assessments

22         I will now describe the new powers to obtain information for required assessments and to grant Court orders to ensure the child’s welfare and safety.

23         We propose six key levers:

a.         First, to ensure assessors have all salient information necessary to make an accurate assessment. Clauses 15, 19 and 29 empower the GIA and authorised adoption agencies to vary or revoke an ASA in specified circumstances or direct prospective adopters and any relevant person of a child to undergo assessments or to provide pertinent information. In principle, this preserves the integrity of the ASA and avoids some situations that MSF encounters today. For instance, prospective adopters failing or refusing to provide information on their financial stability or mental health, and even providing false information. The Bill also states consequences for non-compliance. For example, the GIA can recommend that an adoption order should not be made, if pertinent information is not provided.

b.         Second, under Clause 59, it will be an offence to provide false or misleading information to the GIA or an authorised adoption agency during the adoption process. This is also to ensure the accuracy of assessments, and that an adoption order is not made or refused due to false information.

c.         Third, as the adoption process takes time, Clauses 22 and 30 put the onus on prospective adopters to notify the GIA and authorised adoption agencies of any material changes in their circumstances. For example, applicants who decide to separate midway through the proceedings. The applicants’ duty to notify will commence when they apply for an ASA and will last until the Court decides on their application. Failure to comply can result in the Court drawing an adverse inference against the applicant.

d.         Fourth, under Clause 32, the Court will be able to empower applicants, who are in the midst of adoption proceedings, to make non-routine decisions for the child’s care, where needed. These are decisions that a person can be expected to make ordinarily in caring for a child, such as allowing a wisdom tooth extraction or minor surgery after a fall. If organisations require a court order for applicants to decide on a non-routine decision, applicants may then choose to rely on this provision.

e.         Fifth, Clause 35 empowers the Court to require that applicants, a child’s relevant person and/or the child attend support services such as mediation or counselling. Such orders may be made even after adoption proceedings have concluded.

f.         Lastly, sixth, in the event of an unsuccessful adoption application, Clause 43 allows the Court to order any person who has the child to transfer the child to a suitable person recommended by the GIA, where this is required to ensure the child’s safety. Non-compliance will be an offence punishable with a fine and/or imprisonment.

24         I have spoken at length about the various provisions and measures we have introduced to ensure that we can find a good home for every child. Because we have the child’s welfare at heart. This sums up our first thrust.

II. Balancing The Interest Of The Birth Parents And The Child

25         Next, I will talk about our second key thrust. This is to strike a balance between the interest of the birth parents and the child.

26         First of all, let me state that MSF acknowledges and upholds the sanctity of parents’ rights over their child.

a.         Adoption is not a decision to be taken lightly. Hence, Clause 25 states that an adoption order cannot be made unless all key parties who may be affected by it are notified first. Such key parties include a child’s birth parents and someone who has actual custody of the child. They are referred to as a “relevant person” in the Bill.

b.         The consent of a child’s relevant person should be obtained in the ordinary order of things. We will retain the existing requirement that an adoption order cannot be made unless every relevant person of a child has consented to the child’s adoption. We have made clear how to obtain informed consent, such as having two witnesses when signed consent is obtained.

27         However, in some cases, a child’s birth parent may be missing, or may unreasonably object to the adoption. Even though the refusal harms the child’s welfare. In such instances, the Bill will allow the Court to proceed with the adoption process, even without the birth parents’ consent.

28         While the current ACA lists some grounds for dispensation of consent, stakeholders have shared that these are insufficient.

a.         Over the last few years, there have been about 1,000 children in State care at any point in time.

b.         Of this group, adoption would have been the best permanency option for about 1 in 20 children in State care, or about 50 children. Even then, only 10 applications to adopt them were made each year on average.

c.         Of this already small number, about 40%, or four applications annually were contested by the child’s relevant person, typically a birth parent.

d.         Such contestation, which can be protracted and costly, deters prospective adopters from applying to adopt them. Most importantly, the child’s welfare is adversely impacted because he or she can neither be safely reunified with his or her birth parents or kin, nor be placed in a new, permanent family.

29         To address this, Clauses 36 to 41 provide guidance on a wider range of circumstances where dispensation of consent would be in the child’s welfare. In calibrating these grounds, MSF had studied overseas jurisdictions and past cases we have managed, and consulted widely.

a.         This amendment will help children like Esther (not her real name). 
Esther’s birth mother alleged that she was abused by Esther’s birth father, and that he had placed Esther in physical danger while under the influence of drugs. As Esther’s birth parents were unable to provide a safe and stable home, she was placed in foster care shortly after she was born. Her birth father was also subsequently jailed for drug-related offences.

b.         Despite extensive efforts by MSF’s Child Protective Service to work with her birth parents to reunify Esther with them, concerns remained. About two years after being placed in foster care, MSF arranged for Esther to spend two days weekly with her birth mother. However, Esther experienced nightmares and refused to eat or go to school.

c.         Esther’s birth mother was also unable to care for her independently and could not cope well when stressed. This raised concerns over her ability to provide safe care. Upon his release from prison, Esther’s birth father also could not commit to meeting her to nurture a healthy parent-child relationship. As a result, this left Esther with poor emotional attachments to her birth parents.

d.         Despite this, Esther’s birth father objected to her adoption, even though he lacked the commitment to care for her, as a father ought to have.

e.         Our proposed amendments to clarify the grounds under which the Court can dispense with consent to adoption are intended to help children like Esther move out of the State care system earlier, be adopted, and have the chance to grow up in a safe, loving, and stable family.

30         I would like to emphasise that our intent is not to make it easier to take children away from their parents.

a.         We will not consider adoption for children in State care if they can be safely reunified with their birth family.

b.         It is only when we have exhausted efforts to reunify the child and determined that adoption is the best alternative, that we will seek the consent of the birth parents for the child’s adoption.

c.         Should the birth parents refuse, and MSF’s Child Protective Service conclude that any further delay would harm the child’s welfare, we will source for suitable applicants to adopt the child. Such applicants may then file an application in Court, requesting the Court to consider dispensing with the birth parents’ consent. Like today, birth parents can choose to contest an adoption application, and if there is such contestation, the Court will make the final decision.

III. Putting in Place A Sound Regulatory System For The Adoption Process 

31         Finally, the third thrust is to establish a sound regulatory system for the adoption process.

32         While there is currently no specific regulatory framework that governs adoption, all parties in the adoption sector must comply with Singapore laws. This includes laws against child trafficking. Many stakeholders in the adoption sector do try their best to act responsibly, with the child’s welfare in mind.

33         Nevertheless, MSF has received feedback that some commercial adoption agencies engage in undesirable practices.

a.         This includes advertising children for adoption in a way that other businesses advertise goods for sale, fraudulently obtaining a birth parent’s consent to the child’s adoption, and not being transparent about their fees.

b.         While MSF has worked with SSAs to educate prospective adopters on dubious practices, and also issued stern warnings to entities who engage in undesirable practices, stronger action is needed.

c.         MSF therefore intends to introduce offences and regulatory measures, as follows.

34         First, we will restrict the sharing of identifiable information of children identified for adoption.

a.         Clause 48 prohibits the unauthorised publication or broadcast of identifiable information of children who were or are the subject of adoption proceedings, including after the protected person turns 21 years old.

b.         Clause 51 prohibits the unauthorised publication or broadcast of identifiable information of children when advertising, promoting or providing adoption services, to prevent children from being commodified. In addition to financial penalties, the Court can order offenders to remove the publication or broadcast.

35         Second, we will impose new requirements relating to adoption-related payments.

a.         Today, applicants must apply to the Court for sanctioning of payments they have received in consideration of an adoption, and payments they made to birth parents. Our intent is that payments exchanged in the adoption process should be made to benefit and promote a child’s welfare, and not to exploit or entice a relevant person into giving up his or her child, or for improper financial gain.

b.         Clause 53 extends the sanctioning requirement to payments made by applicants to people beyond birth parents. If payments made or received by the applicants are not declared to the Court and sanctioned, they cannot be enforced.

c.         Under Clause 54, every adoption agency must publish a list of every payment to be made to, or through the agency for adoption-related matters. This will increase transparency and allow prospective adopters to make better-informed decisions. It will be an offence if an adoption agency fails to do so without reasonable excuse.

d.         We will also regulate categories of payments under Clause 55 to guard against improper financial gains. Making or receiving any adoption-related payment outside permitted categories will be an offence. Examples of permitted payments include legal fees and payments to defray the costs of caring for a child.

36         Third, we will penalise the use of fraud, duress, undue influence or other improper means to obtain consent to adoption.

a.         MSF has encountered applications where the birth parent alleged that he or she was tricked into signing the consent document.

b.         Some birth mothers interviewed by MSF have shared that they were forced by adoption agencies into signing the consent document without having sufficient time to consider the implications. Such practices are wrong and harmful. Under Clause 56, such practices will amount to obtaining consent improperly and will be an offence.

37         Fourth, Clause 57 will regulate the circumstances where children can be placed with prospective adopters.

a.         Generally, this will only be allowed if the prospective adopter has already obtained an ASA. If the child is a foreigner, the prospective adopter must also have in-principle approval for a Dependant’s Pass for the child.

b.         Prospective adopters will be guilty of an offence if they fail to comply. Adoption agencies, any relevant person of the child, and people who assist them will also be guilty of an offence if they place a child with such prospective adopters.

c.         However, there are some children who live with prospective adopters before they commence the adoption process, such as children whose foster parents intend to adopt them, or children living with their relatives who are seeking to adopt them. The Bill thus specifies that the offence will not apply in such cases for practical reasons, as removing the child temporarily from the prospective adopters during the adoption application process would not be in the child’s welfare. Nonetheless, if the ASA turns out to be unfavourable due to care or protection concerns, MSF will step in to arrange for alternative care arrangements.

38         Lastly, the Bill makes clear that protecting children and strengthening the adoption sector is a shared responsibility.

a.         Under Clause 60, it will be an offence for key parties involved in adoption proceedings or in the adoption sector to fail to report suspected offences under the Bill to the GIA or an officer authorised by the GIA.

b.         Under Clause 72, individuals who report – whether voluntarily or under a legal obligation – will be protected from legal liability for reporting. Their identity will also be protected during court proceedings.

c.         In addition, under Clause 73, key parties performing statutory functions, 
such as the GIA and staff in authorised adoption agencies, will be protected from personal liability, if they have acted in good faith and with reasonable care.

39         As the majority of applications in Singapore involve inter-country adoptions, the proposed offences will have extra-territorial effect under Clause 50. This means that if an offence is committed by a person outside Singapore, the person may be dealt with as if the offence was committed within Singapore.

40         The penalties for first-time offenders of an offence in the Bill range from a fine of up to $5,000 or $10,000 and/or imprisonment for a term up to 12 months or 3 years.

a.         The penalties are higher for repeat offenders and offences targeted at commercial adoption agencies.

b.         To enforce these new offences, Clauses 61 to 63 provide the GIA and authorised officers with powers of enforcement, while Clauses 64 and 65 clarify that it would be an offence to obstruct enforcement or provide false or misleading information to officers performing enforcement functions, such as an officer authorised by the GIA.

C. CONCLUSION 

41         To conclude. It is timely to bring this Bill before the House, as we designated 2022 to be the Year of Celebrating SG Families.

a.         At the start of my speech, I shared about how families are the bedrock of our society.

b.         This Bill reaffirms the enduring role that families play in our society, and towards the nurturing of resilient individuals.

c.         It reminds us how providing every child with a strong, safe and stable family environment, also gives them a good start in life, as well as enables them to flourish and to fulfil their potential.

d.         While most children will be blessed to grow up happy and safe in the family they were born into, this Bill will enable adopted children to experience the comfort, care and love of a family, described in the words of 10-year-old Zephaniah, as their “forever” Mummies, “forever” Daddies, and “forever” brothers and sisters.

42         Mr Speaker, I beg to move.



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